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Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture

Author: Lisa Gitelman
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008

 REVIEW 1: J. Patrick Biddix
 REVIEW 2: David Heineman
 REVIEW 3: Michelle Rodino-Colocino

The existence of an artifact hints a cultural deliberateness, suggesting a discoverable story of intentional creation and contextual use. Artifacts are corporeal (visible or virtual) representations of time and space, owner and ownership, offering valuable historical insight. Media as artifact present a conundrum, as both object and representation of object. Consider a manuscript, which can be studied as both medium (procedures associated with documentation), as well as representation (what is documented). Historically, scholars examine both documentation and document to reconstruct a description of what was.

New media, particularly in the last century, rely on transparency. The user/consumer wants to explore the representation, not the medium by which the object is represented. Somewhere in the rapid development of new media, we have misplaced the importance of medium to offer vital clues as to the culture surrounding its creation and use. We forget not only the technology, but also the associated protocols of its use that are learned and culturally assimilated (and thereby also become transparent).

It is this disregard that Gitelman challenges in Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture, a part extension, part natural progression drawing on her previous work on Edison (Collins & Gitelman, 2002), inscriptive media (Gitelman, 1999), and media history (Gitelman & Pingree, 2003). In six informative chapters, she details the advent and cultural significance of the phonograph and the World Wide Web at specific historical periods to reintroduce the reader to the cultural significance of new media.

Gitelman begins by introducing the reader to the dilemma of media as historical subjects, questioning the simultaneity of using media to learn about the past, but experiencing the past by using media. In the successive five chapters, the dénouement is enacted though four case studies of two types of media, the phonograph and the Web. Broadly, the book is presented as a phenomenological look at the ways that people experience meaning, perceive the world and communicate, distinguish the past, and identify culture. More narrowly, the work is about new media as socially embedded sites that facilitate the negotiation of meaning.

A frequent and helpful semiotic discussion highlights the duality of record and document to discuss the significance of negotiated meanings in historical context. To understand the importance of the medium (device) we must also consider the associated protocols that have evolved to transparency with the use of new media. If invisibility is an aspiration of new media, then such modus operandi must be considered alongside the object of representation to construct meaning: "Just as it makes no sense to appreciate an artwork without attending to its medium (painted in watercolors or oils? Sculpted in granite or Styrofoam?), it makes no sense to think about 'content' without attending to the medium that both communicates that content and represents or helps to set the limits of what that content can consist of" (7).

Technology -- its development, uses, and socio-cultural significance -- is in constant state of change. Indeed, the fluidity of new media connotes the "always already new" depiction. To capture this idea, Gitelman presents a look at look at two types of new media in the U.S. While seemingly restrictive, this delimitation is used to counter the more typical Darwinesque approach that restricts cultural significance of data-in-time.

Chapter one covers the origin of public phonograph demonstrations in 1878 and nickel-in-slot machines from 1889 - 1893. "Inscribing" sound on tinfoil created a record, a term that at the time was evolving from its original description as a person's past performance. Gitelman reports that attendees of early demonstrations were interested in keeping a souvenir of their experience (a piece of the used tinfoil), or in other words, a record of the record, an "evocation of public experience" that "vouched for belonging" (39). The interpretation evokes Schein's (1996) first level of cultural development, the importance of artifact, which may be applied here as a indicator of an evolving public identity -- a citizenry emerging in the wake of industrialism and standardization looking for individuality in shared experience. Recall that a U.S identity was taking shape in a nation just beginning to solidify "we" following the civil war and westward expansion. Gitelman rightfully does not overextend this idea (as perhaps I have), as it may be a leap from empirical record, though her argument lends this interpretation.

The nickel-in-slot machines offered a similar experience, if not a tangible artifact. The listener was able, within the public sphere (wherever the machine was located) to have a private experience (using an earphone-like device). For the masses, a famous voice recording could be personally experienced, which nicely evidences Gitelman's conception of emerging culture. This idea is revisited in chapter three, which further evidences the struggle for individuality amid the Civil Rights Movement.

Chapter two covers a fifteen year span from 1895 - 1910, in which recorded sound entered the American home. Gitelman refers to this as an era of "new media users" to note the cultural context of consumption. She urges us to seek the histories of new media in its uses and users, evidenced by the developing idea of consumer choice as a "pubic expression of an individual's reason and identity" (60). The variety of recordings available spanned cultural categories, allowing consumers to "negotiate their inclusion within a wider public ... and at the same time maintain or activate potential distinctions between that public and the immigrant counterpubics to which they belonged" (79). Stepping into the modern era of CD/DVD/.mp3 media, Gitelman compares the importance of records as material possessions allowing repetition and continual reconsumption. Incorporated in this chapter is a discussion of difference emphasized in what is recorded, including the challenge of recording women's voices and a prevailing racism evidenced by early available recordings. Though also hinted in the introductory chapter, this argument is not sufficiently developed. The strength of this chapter is its contribution to the societal questions regarding what can and should be publicly inscribed that, despite the recent Web 2.0 harangue obsolescing such questions, continue to proliferate. The debate between what was/is recorded and documented serves as a useful transition to the subsequent discussion of the Internet.

Chapter three spans 1968 - 1972, recounting the development and cultural context of what came to be the Internet. Gitelman begins with an anecdote from the anti-war movement, tracing the details of United States v. O'Brien (1968). This case was particularly relevant for media historians in that a media artifact (a computer card) was destroyed to protest the draft. O'Brien argued, unsuccessfully, that burning the card was protected speech, while the court saw the card as a necessary function of the draft process. The case evidences a greater societal struggle, particularly among college students, against "the system," or "the machine" as so eloquently phrased by Mario Savio. In either case, the Internet was borne in a time when federal research dollars wielded increasing control over the university (by fact or perception), which alongside swelling enrollments left students feeling more like numbers than individuals (Kerr, 2001). Couple this with the computer, which was used to process registration and other functions of student life and it takes little imagination to illusion a feeling of "processed." Gitelman writes that "unsettled assumptions like these become more unsettled, or at least evidently more unsettled, by new media" (93).

Transitioning to a discussion of ARPANET, Gitelman observes that like sound recordings, which called the meaning of print and public speech into question, electronic documents similarly connote a manner of control. In the early history of computers, documentation consisted of a system of dots as indecipherable to the human eye as phonographic tinfoil, in which information was similarly relayed and interpreted by machine for consumption. Networked communication led to a system of protocols that was shaped and continually renegotiated by users. Gitelman offers the case of an undergraduate typing the Declaration of Independence in caps and making it available to everyone on ARPANET. Thought the original intent of action is gone, when taken in cultural context, this anecdote is emblematic of the provoking questions new media suggest.

Chapter four is more presently situated. It begins with an accusatory statement: The Internet is wrong about its own history. Just as Gitelman asked us to question the concept of document in the previous chapter, she artfully introduces a medium that while mathematically infallible, cannot distinguish fact from fiction. The notion that document equates record in this medium is an interesting puzzle. It supersedes questions of what should get documented, and instead confuses relevance in an ever-changing super-document (the Web).

Gitelman further argues that the Internet redefines historical, when considering what is old versus new. The oldest document on the Internet, for example, is the least recently modified page. However, scans of documents for the William Blake Archive predate this page by hundreds of years.

Transitioning to a discussion on the blurring of private versus public, Gitelman recounts that information is front loaded on a local server or computer (private), then uploaded to the Web (public). Even with a time/date stamp, we cannot reliably know when something was created versus when it was made public. She notes that "the connections between publication-as-event and events made public is not transparent but is crucial to the experience of media in time and therefore in history" (138). Gitelman likens the Web to a massive, ongoing work in constant development and flux, hence, "a space for interpretation where interpretation is always already underway" (146).

Gitelman concludes with an epilogue that is part summary, part musing on the continued study of media history and culture. The interchange of media development, public adoption, and cultural dissemination offers an always emerging order (emphasis on the lowercase "o") of public life and public memory. New media is not merely the latest instrument innovation by which we capture and gauge history, but is a historical artifact in kind, that if taken in context allows a phenomenological glimpse at the negotiation of medium and public/consumer.

Always Already New chronicles the development of a bourgeoisie citizenry struggling first to find we (mindful of a not-so-distant civil war and continued manifest destiny), then to define "me" (the individual) as a part of "we" (the developing collective citizenry). Later, in the Sixties, "me" became disillusioned with "we" amidst fears of lost individuality (the system/machine) and the search for me continued. Today, me is more prominent then ever, with applications of "me media," and other applications broadly referred to as Web 2.0, that allow users to develop a private me that is a visible, tangible part of a larger online public we. Gitelman's contribution stands as a reminder that the consumption of new media (referring to both technology and associated conventions) is a cultural reflection of a changing social conscious.

The organization of the text and inclusion of case studies are well-conceived. As a matter of perspective, the writing is a bit prosy at times, and may be distant to many audiences. This is particularly evident in chapters one and two, while three and four seem more concise. Visually, the text could have benefited from a few more subheadings, as I found myself lost at times following a particular idea. However, Gitelman frequently returns to important points, which helps bind the occasional overly descriptive narrative. I would like to have seen a more concise treatment of gender than hinted in the first two chapters, which is introduced then left undeveloped. Further, as a higher education historian, I appreciated the nod to Lawrence Veysey (1965), in which a connection was evident in the cases presented in the first three chapters, but whose direct and further relation is left to the reader. Perhaps we will see a more comprehensive treatment of this connection in a future work?

When I picked up Always Already New, I was looking for an innovative historically grounded and culturally situated perspective on new media. Gitelman's view is a provocative look that rewarded me with more questions about the data of culture (and the culture of data, for that matter) than answers. The danger of writing about technology is its fluidity, which evokes Hericlitus's river acknowledged by Gitelman. Her treatment of cases, however, presents a model of how to look at new media that transcend their instability. At the core of this work is a fundamental self-examination that has been with us since the advent of civilization -- negotiation of self within public. Always Already New reminds us that such issues are more salient now that ever.

Collins, T. M. & Gitelman, L. (2002). Thomas Edison and Modern America: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.

Gitelman, L. (1999). Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gitelman, L. & Pingree, G. (Eds.) (2003). New Media, 1740-1915. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kerr, C. The Uses of the University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schein, E. H. (1996). Organizational Culture and Leadership (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Veysey, L. (1965). The Emergence of the American University. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

J. Patrick Biddix:
Dr. J. Patrick Biddix uses multi- and mixed-methods approaches to study the role of information and communication technology (ICT) in higher education and student affairs. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Missouri in St. Louis in 2006 and is currently Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Research Methods at Valdosta State University.  <jpbiddix@valdosta.edu>

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